New Report Offers Comprehensive View of America’s Muslim Prison Population

Growing Number of Muslims Housed in State Prisons, Denied Religiously-Compliant Food and Prayer Opportunities

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, Muslim Advocates released a first-of-its-kind report documenting the size of the American Muslim population in state prisons and the many ways their basic religious freedoms are needlessly denied.

The report, entitled Fulfilling the Promise of Free Exercise for All: Muslim Prisoner Accommodation in State Prisons, is based on never-before-seen data pulled from the results of records requests that Muslim Advocates sent to 49 states and the District of Columbia as well as an analysis of more than 160 recent Muslim prisoner lawsuits. Until now, little information has been compiled about the numbers of state prisoners who identify as Muslim, or of any faith.[1]

Muslim Advocates Arthur Liman Yale Law School Public Interest Fellow Yusuf Saei is available for further discussion on the report. Please email [email protected] to coordinate interviews.[2]

Among the key findings in the report:

  • Muslims Are Vastly Overrepresented in State Prisons: About nine percent of the overall state prison population is Muslim. In Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and D.C., the share of Muslim prisoners is around 20 percent or higher. The significant presence of Muslims in prison stands in stark contrast to Muslims’ share of the U.S. population as a whole, which is just one percent.
  • Muslim Prisoners Are Often Denied Religiously-Approved Food, Prayer and Worship Opportunities: Muslim Advocates reviewed more than 160 free exercise lawsuits filed by incarcerated Muslims in federal court, and found that many involved a lack of religiously-approved meals, an inability to observe traditional religious fasting or being barred from praying in groups. California’s prisons were sued the most, with 20 cases, followed by New York (13), Virginia (10), Georgia (9), North Carolina (8), Texas (8) and Wisconsin (8).
  • Some States Ignore or Downplay Incarcerated Muslims’ Basic Religious Needs: Some states have policies that comply with federal law and the Constitution by accommodating the basic needs of Muslim prisoners. However, other states needlessly and excessively deny Muslim prisoners these accommodations, seemingly without any legitimate justification. The fact that some states easily grant Muslims access to religiously-approved food and clothing while others don’t shows how arbitrary these denials are.
  • America’s Muslim Prison Population is Growing, Includes Many Women: The data shows that the number of Muslims in state prisons is growing, even though the prison population overall has decreased in recent years in many states. Further, this population includes many women, with eight percent of female prisoners identifying as Muslim in Pennsylvania and 2.5 percent identifying as Muslim in Texas and Wisconsin.

“State prisons incarcerate far more people than the federal system yet, until now, there was little to no basic information about how these states handle their constitutional obligation to allow people to practice their religion,” said Muslim Advocates Arthur Liman Yale Law School Public Interest Fellow Yusuf Saei. “Prisons are not Constitution-free zones. As the population of Muslims held in state prisons grows, states clearly aren’t taking the First Amendment rights of their incarcerated populations seriously.”

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